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The Dayton Art Institute’s latest exhibition celebrates the human experience as expressed by one of today's leading Native American artists
The lobby was crowded and buzzing with anticipation during preview night of the Dayton's Art Institute's latest exhibit Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist. After viewing this collection of over 60 works including paintings, sketchbooks, and drawings, I understand why.
WalkingStick is a charismatic figure: a Cherokee Nation and United States citizen who has devoted her life’s work to capturing the beauty and complexity of Native people and themes on paper and canvas. The artist states on her website that her work should inspire others to see “our shared humanity in all of its gritty, frightening, awkward, sexy, funny and beautiful commonality.” Based on this exhibit, WalkingStick easily surpasses this goal.
Her landscapes evoke the desert beauty of western arroyos and mesas, the lush green abundance of the Smoky Mountains sadly left behind during the forced Native American migrations, and the roiling, tempestuous sea waters of grief and pain.
WalkingStick’s use of the diptych, two complementary but contrasting canvases placed side by side, effectively conveys the artist’s feelings of chaos and emptiness after the death of her husband. Multiple diptychs pair detailed landscapes with abstract shapes or objects to suggest the opposing forces of life and death, memory and grief. The works strike a familiar chord in those who have experienced such loss.
Another favorite form of WalkingStick’s is the addition of cold wax to a wood canvas to create an intriguing blend of acrylic and sculpture. Some of my favorite paintings in the collection, including Cardinal Points and For Sakajewea, reflect the rugged beauty of these brightly colored, heavily textured canvases.
I was particularly fascinated by the intricate sketchbooks WalkingStick kept during trips to Rome as a faculty member for Cornell University. The artist’s fondness for Italian and Renaissance art and architecture is evident in her use of gold leaf and ornamental embellishments, and in one painting, the depiction of a shadowy, demonic figure is reminiscent of a character from Dante’s Inferno or a gargoyle from the spires of a European cathedral.
Present in many of WalkingStick’s works are traces of her complex self-identity. There are crosses in several paintings, symbolizing her faith and spirituality. There are bold geometric shapes and vibrant landscapes, representing the balance between nature and earth, as well as colorful patterns and tribal symbols representing the artist’s Cherokee heritage. Feet and legs appear in many canvases, depicting pilgrimage and journey. A rendering of WalkingStick’s artist’s apron spattered with paint serves as a signature work of the collection and signifies creative identity, while her haunting self-portraits and colorful silhouette block portraits celebrate feminism and liberation. In every canvas and drawing there is a universal sense of the human experience and of the common threads that bind us together as we move through the world.
At the entrance to the exhibit, there is a quote from WalkingStick that says, “This is who we Americans really are. All different, all the same, all in it together, making art.” At a time when our nation is divided over politics and racial and ethnic diversity, it is refreshing to find an artist and an exhibit that delivers a message of healing and unity. You will leave this experience challenged and changed.
Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist is on display now through May 7, 2017. Admission, which includes access to the exhibition and the museum's permanent collections, is $14 for adults, $11 for seniors 60 and over, $11 for active duty military personnel, $11 for students 18 years and older with ID, and $6 for youth ages 7 to 17. Admission is free for DAI members and children under 6. Museum hours are Wednesday through Saturday 11 am – 5 pm with extended evening hours on Thursdays until 8 pm and Sunday Noon – 5 pm. The museum is closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and major holidays.
Amy Dallis is a Dayton native with a passion for Emily Dickinson, Impressionist art, great books, British TV and artisan coffee.